The two Indiana United Methodist Cabinets and I recently met at DePauw University for our annual Appointment Retreat. Our process begins by looking at the "move/stay" recommendations from every pastor and every Pastor-Parish Relations Committee. This leads to our "balance sheet" or "inventory" of clergy, and it begins to help us know how many pastors are retiring, how many seminary graduates are returning, how many new pastors we may need to recruit, and what pastors we may need to move. Our system is designed for each pastor to have a church and each church to have a pastor, so it is quite a challenge to keep these numbers in balance.
At this writing, I have not seen any of those "move/stay" forms yet, so this message is not directed to anyone in particular. However, before I look at those forms and hear those reports from our District Superintendents, I always like to re-read Paul's letter to Titus in the New Testament.
We don't have the letter from Titus to Paul, but we can guess what it said because of Paul's response letter which we do have in the New Testament. Titus must have said something like this: "Get me out of here! I don't want to serve these people any more. They are Cretans!" (He was serving on the island of Crete, and the term "Cretans" comes from his description of how rough and mean those people of Crete could be.) And Titus also may have said, "I would prefer an assignment in a more pleasant place, with a little better culture, where my spouse can get a better job (actually we don't know whether or not Titus was married), and where my kids can attend finer schools (we also don't know whether or not Titus had kids, but please just humor my imagination)."
We do know that Titus apparently told Paul he was tired of dealing with "false teachings" and with differences and divisions among the people and with too many wrangling and disagreeable folks. It is obvious also from Paul's reply that Titus had complained that some of the people he served on Crete were not even courteous to one another, or to their pastor/leader Titus.
Amazingly Paul's answer to Titus is to say (and this is my paraphrase), "All of the reasons you give me for leaving are exactly the reasons that you need to stay and continue your ministry." Paul says, "I left you behind in Crete for this very reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done..." (chapter 1, verse 5). Paul further says, "There are many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision (Paul's name for those who were concerned with Old Testament rituals and not open to the new possibilities of the Gospel); they must be silenced since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach" (verses 10-11). He continues by quoting, "Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, and lazy gluttons" (verse 12). Wow! How would you like to serve that congregation?
And yet Paul asks Titus to stay, to continue his ministry, to "teach what is consistent with sound doctrine" and to help all ages to be temperate, reverent, courteous, and self-controlled. What a task! Any wonder that Titus was asking for a new appointment?
Paul also gives Titus some good advice in order to endure his assignment: "Avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. After a first and second admonishment, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned" (chapter 3, verses 10-11). Paul understood that our ministry must rise above petty arguments, and that you never "win" an argument with someone who just wants to cause trouble.
Paul does indicate, at the end of the letter, that eventually he will send help to Titus and allow Titus to get a break. But for now, Paul tells Titus to stay and continue with his ministry.
Now, I know very well that there are good reasons why pastors have to move, including those times when the Cabinet and I ask a pastor to move to take a new assignment for the good of the whole Conference. And I know that there are good reasons why churches need a change of pastors.
However, Paul's letter to Titus reminds me that too often we jump to the conclusion that "moving the pastor" is the only answer - and sometimes we make that change before anyone has tried to work through problems and difficulties. My first District Superintendent used to say, "The great thing about our United Methodist system is that we can move pastors easily; but the worst thing about our United Methodist system is that we can move pastors easily."
He was right, and his point was the same as that of Paul's letter to Titus. Sometimes the very reasons we think we need to leave are the same reasons that we need to stay and continue our ministry.
That's a good reminder for me as we begin our appointment season.
I close with Paul's closing words to Titus: "Grace be with all of you!"
- Bishop Michael J. Coyner
Indiana Conference of The United Methodist Church